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By Evan Norris 14th Nov 2018 | 2,722 views
Save me Mr Tako! is a study in subverted expectations. With its cutesy cover art, cartoon octopus protagonist, and retro Game Boy graphics, you'd expect it to be an old-school platformer short on story and beatable within a few hours. Instead, Save me Mr Tako! is a back-tracking platform-adventure game with a heavy narrative and some of the most punishing gameplay of 2018. In fact, the game's unusual, excessive difficulty spoils what could have been a decent throwback experience.
Picking up in the middle of an ongoing war between humans and octopuses, Save me Mr Tako! follows the titular Tako in his quest to sway the hearts and minds of both species against bloodshed. Joining him on his quest are several sidekicks and enemies, including brother Bako, the octopus warlord, a handful of royal humans—with their own inter-kingdom rivalries—and a couple of scheming fairies. As the story unfolds, and takes several dark, unexpected turns, Tako and friends will endeavor to stop the war, seek redemption, and find some way to avoid the extermination of one race or another.
Despite some confusing storytelling—it's sometimes difficult to differentiate characters due to simple 8-bit models, and tricky to keep track of all the political alliances—Save me Mr Tako! tells an engrossing, earnest story that far outclasses anything in the Game Boy canon in terms of pathos. Don't let the monochromatic graphics fool you; this little game packs an emotional wallop.
It also deals an almost unbearably challenging set of levels and platforming trials. Truly, Save me Mr Tako! is one of the most taxing, exasperating games on Nintendo’s hybrid. Any Switch owners struggling with Dark Souls Remastered should give this retro platformer a try, then return to Lordran and count their blessings.
The steep difficulty doesn’t come from the game’s controls—a two-button scheme and floaty jumps are forgiving, if anything—or the general gameplay, which resembles Kirby’s Adventure or Mutant Mudds. No, Save me Mr Tako! strays into cruel and unusual territory due to stingy hit point and extra life limits, a lack of checkpoints, and overlong dungeons in which the margin of error is microscopic.
The first and most basic problem is that every playable character has but a single health point. If a stray arrow or dive-bombing enemy makes contact with Tako it means instant death and a trip back to the beginning of the level (or mid-level if you hit the odd checkpoint). Furthermore, you can’t stockpile extra lives for difficult levels, as the game caps you at nine.
When one-hit kills and insufficient extra lives mix with a dearth of mid-level save points and trial-and-error dungeon design, things can get frustrating fast. These issues converge most dramatically in three late-game dungeons. With only a single checkpoint in each before the end boss, it's easy to lose 10, 15, 20 minutes of progress to a tricky jump, off-screen enemy, or mini-boss. It only gets more challenging from there, with an exhausting climb up a multi-story lighthouse—which provides checkpoints every two floors, thank goodness—a Balloon Trip-esque flight through airborne mines, and, lastly, the gruelling final boss. If you manage to see Save me Mr Tako! through to the end, you've earned your place in video game Valhalla.
It's all a shame, really, because the title has the makings of a solid platform-adventure game in the style of Zelda II or Castlevania II. The core gameplay conceit, whereby Tako "freezes" enemies with ink and then uses them as platforms, works well, and the game world is populated with busy cities, towns, and shrines, some of which are underwater, almost all of which house NPC quest-givers. While quest design suffers from some poor sign-posting—the entire game, actually, does a poor job of telling you where to go or how to track your progress—it makes Tako's environment feel more organic and meaningful, and delivers some tangible rewards.
Those rewards come, most commonly, in the form of 50 collectible hats, which grant the soft-hearted cephalopod new powers or buffs. A military helmet arms Tako with a spear; a witch's hat allows him to summon black cats; a bycocket bestows a bow and arrow; and so on. When you're not customizing the titular hero with fashionable head gear, you can alter the look of the game, by choosing from several screen size, background, and palette options. Backgrounds include character portraits, game environments, and even one that makes your TV monitor look like a handheld screen. Palettes, which come in 17 flavors, turn Save me Mr Tako! monochromatic, Game Boy green, orange, blue, yellow, pink, etc. It's a fun way to make the game your own.
Complementing those color schemes are some lovely 8-bit graphics, which make Save me Mr Tako! look like it leapt off a Game Boy in 1994 and dived through a wormhole to arrive on Switch in 2018. Its chiptune soundtrack, composed by Marc-Antoine Archier via DefleMask tracker, is even more striking. "The Princess," a plaintive, ethereal track, is perhaps the game's best.
Save me Mr Tako! is not the simple retro experience it seems, despite pixel graphics and chiptune music. It's longer, deeper, and more narratively profound than the bite-sized portable titles that inspired it. Yet at the same time it's far less enjoyable. One-hit kills, extra life limits, infrequent checkpoints, and overlong, excessively-difficult dungeons make this tribute to the Game Boy more frustrating than fun.